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‘Ello gov’na: American obsession with the British accent

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“Wait, speak,” yet another person pleads as I introduce myself to my dorm mates on move-in day. As if I wasn’t already speaking before? I am now so used to this reaction when I tell people I’m from London that I can predict exactly what else will be said, sooner or later. At some point, there’s always the “that’s so cool!” and then of course I will be challenged to “try to do an American accent.” I won’t ask them to do a British accent, but before I even realize it, I will be surrounded by a mixture of bad cockney and overly posh London accents. 

It all began at a girls’ summer camp somewhere in Northern Minnesota, which I attended for eight summers. I hadn’t really ever thought about my accent being interesting until I was surrounded by Americans who were all asking me to say different things or keep talking. I’m not going to lie, I kind of loved the attention. But it was also strange to me that being British was sort of my “thing” at this camp. I was the British girl.

And then I came to Stanford, and pretty much the exact same thing happened. My accent and quirks of language have become jokes virtually throughout my entire dorm. When I see someone from my dorm around campus I will often be greeted with “’ello gov’na.” Never in my life have I heard someone use that phrase unironically — or said it myself — but it is one of those weird British stereotypes that stuck. A newfound obsession with crumpets also materialized in my dorm, one so strong that a few people even felt the need to research “crumpet places near me” and go to an English tea shop in San Francisco. It happens without the British people around too. I will overhear phone conversations or see people in the dining hall just speaking in British accents for no apparent reason. 

I will just be going about my day, minding my own business and someone will ask me to say “water bottle” (that’s always a crowd pleaser), or one I had never gotten before was “waffle,” a seemingly mundane word which somehow became instantaneously fascinating when paired with the glamour of a British accent. I was in my room one night with a few friends and the floor was a bit messy, so I said that “we should hoover soon,” a statement met with blank expressions and silence. Only when I realized my mistake and corrected myself with “vacuum” did I finally see some form of comprehension in their expressions. Another day I asked the simple question, “Does anyone know where the bin is?” and I got the same vacant stare in return. Every time, I eventually realize my mistakes and translate, often leading other people to adopt these “quirky” sayings.

What makes an accent or nationality so interesting or cool? Is it simply because we are fascinated with what is unknown or foreign to us? The answer to that question is probably yes. The funny thing is, when Americans come to London, most Brits just don’t really care. Here, people really seem to love it. So as long as it isn’t driving me completely insane, I will continue to humor all the Americans by blessing them with my rendition of the word “literally” and making a boring “hello” or “goodbye” that little bit more exciting with “’ello gov’na” and “cheerio.” If only my British friends could see what I’ve become…

Contact Alex Riklin at ariklin ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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